Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Let’s Get Geophysical

As some of you know, we are in the midst of the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2009, a global program to coordinate research in the Arctic and Antarctic. This IPY follows three earlier ones: in 1883-1884, 1932-33, and 1957-1958 (which was, technically, the International Geophysical Year IGY). The first IPY was the brainchild of Carl Weyprecht, an Austrian explorer who had grown tired of watching explorers race into the Arctic on bids to attain “Farthest North,” lose their toes to frostbite, then return home with pockets empty.

Carl Weyprecht

The “Race for the Poles” was, Weyprecht realized, a race but little else. As such, it was at odds with the needs of polar research, which required observers to stay in one place long enough to take note of what they were seeing, record measurements, and collect data. Only in this way would scientists begin to figure out how the polar regions functioned holistically, and then, how they influenced the rest of the world, particularly global weather and climates.

For over a century, science and transnational collaboration have been the twin pillars of the IPY philosophy. In combining them, scientists hoped, they could uncover the mysteries of the polar regions, all the while avoiding the need to subject their projects to the demands of the glory-hungry explorers and jingoistic leaders.

Yes, well, it was a lovely idea. In truth none of the IPYs were free from megalomaniacs (on sledges or in political office). During the first IPY, the United States outpost at Lady Franklin Bay, under the command of Adolphus Greely, dutifully collected research.

The Greely Party in 1881

That is, until, Greely saw an opportunity to beat the record of “farthest north” held by the British. Two months of sledging and 600 miles later, Greely’s party established a new “farthest north” record of 83°24,′ exactly three nautical miles farther than the one set by the Nares Expedition in 1875. Science and latitude records were forgotten, though, with the expedition’s demise from cold and starvation. The failure of relief ships to reach Greely resulted in the deaths of most of his party. Nor did the spirit of the IPY carry on after the expedition’s rescue. The impressive pile of data collected by stations all over the Arctic could not compete with reports of Greely’s incompetence, evidence of cannibalism, and the execution of a crew member for stealing food.

The Greely Party in 1884

Fifty years later, an international meteorological congress tried to resurrect the idea of scientific collaboration with IPY-2, which took a new set of questions about magnetism, the aurora, and radio science, to the poles. Yet coming as it did in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, IPY-2 fell short when the money ran out.

The IGY of 1957-1958, conceived in the midst of the Cold War, seemed just the kind of feel-good, collaborative effort needed to reduce tensions between East and West. Unfortunately the first offspring of IGY was Sputnik. As the tiny satellite beeped its way over the Western hemisphere, it brought tears to the eyes of Russians, and visions of nuclear-tipped ICBMs to anxious Americans.

Despite talk of science and collaboration, then, the legacy of the IPYs has featured much of the vain-glorious and nationalistic pap that Weyprecht had been trying so earnestly to avoid. What then, can we hope to achieve in IPY-4? If my experience at the IPY-sponsored North By Degree conference is any indication, I think the ultimate benefit of getting people together is, well, getting people together. No one can offer a guarantee of future accomplishments. Most IPY subjects and discussions are too wonky to make good headlines. But ultimately the international IPY is a form of social communion, a way of building relationships. We had tense moments in Philadelphia – but we all stayed in the room – and continued to talk and argue about our positions for the extent of the conference. It is from this messy back and forth, I think, that real collaborative projects grow.

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